Beach update: West Tisbury open, Oak Bluffs beaches ordered closed

Inkwell Beach, Wednesday afternoon, looking toward the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority Terminal. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

There was some good news and some very bad news this week in the open and close cycle of Martha’s Vineyard beaches linked to reported high levels of bacteria in required water tests. All West Tisbury beaches were reopened to swimming, but the state Department of Public Health ordered three recently reopened Oak Bluffs beaches closed.

Bad news, good news

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) Wednesday ordered Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteux to close three popular public swimming beaches the town health agent reopened Saturday based on one day’s clean test results, but without meeting the state standard for five succesive results.

The news was good in West Tisbury.

“We’re good to go,” Chris Kennedy, The Trustees of Reservations Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday after announcing the reopening of Long Point Beach.

It was good news for Mr. Kennedy and his organization, which closed the popular beach at the height of the summer during a spell of fine beach weather and with more hot weather on the way. The beach fronts on the Atlantic Ocean and is part of The Trustees’ Long Point property in West Tisbury.

John Powers, West Tisbury health agent, had similar news regarding Lambert’s Cove Beach on Vineyard Sound, which reopened to swimming Tuesday, July 19., the last of several beaches to reopen.

“We have been testing every day since the closure and we will continue to test,” Mr. Powers told The Times Wednesday.

Health officials in the two towns closed public and private beaches, after the results of water quality tests showed high levels of enterococci bacteria, above the state standard for safe swimming.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), enterococci bacteria are an indicator organism that may mean water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.

High levels of enterococcus can cause skin irritation, vomiting, or diarrhea. Island health officials remain mystified as to what may have caused spikes in bacteria levels to the top of measurement charts that led to numerous closings in the past few weeks.


Enterococci are a group of bacterial species within the streptococcus genus, some of which (e.g. streptococcus faecalis) are typically found in human and animal intestines and are therefore present in sewage. These tests are also referred to as indicator organisms.

Any sample with a count greater than 104 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water (cfu/100 ml) is called an “exceedance,” which requires that the beach be posted.

For example, water samples taken on July 5, showed enterococci counts of 1,553 colony forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/ml) at the north end of Lambert’s Cove Beach and 548 cfu/100 ml at the south end, according to the department website.

The results of tests taken on July 5 led West Tisbury to close Lambert’s Cove Beach, Uncle Seth’s Pond, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach to swimming on July 7. The beaches reopened on July 8, after test results showed bacteria at acceptable levels.

It was a brief respite. On July 12, West Tisbury health officials closed Lambert’s Cove Beach, Salt Works Seven Gates Beach, Uncle Seth’s Pond, Long Point Beach, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach, after the results of water quality tests taken July 11, again showed high levels of bacteria.

On July 14, Seth’s Pond and Salt Works reopened. On July 15, Long Cove Pond was able to reopen.

State regulations complicate

The delay in reopening the Long Point ocean beach and Lambert’s Cove was related to state regulations that require health officials to average out test results.

For example, the delay in reopening Long Point Beach was related to water tested on July 11 that showed 2,420 cfu/ml of enterococci bacteria, Mr. Kennedy explained in an earlier conversation.

Department of Public Health regulations required The Trustees to average five successive water tests and come up with 35 or less cfu/ml. Recent tests were all under 100, but the unusually high number on July continued to affect the average until five tests could be completed.

No water could be tested July 14, because of the previous night’s heavy rains. Regulations require agencies to wait 24 hours after a rain event.

“It is very frustrating in the middle of the summer to have to close the beach,” Mr. Kennedy said last week.

Last summer, beach closings occurred in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and West Tisbury, during some of the busiest weeks of the summer.

Beach closings have been a regular occurrence along the Massachusetts coast in recent summers.